Let’s say you’re a politician in a close race and your opponent suffers a stroke. What do you do?
If you are Mehmet Oz running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, what you do is mock your opponent’s affliction. In August, the Oz campaign released a list of “concessions” it would offer to the Democrat John Fetterman in a candidates’ debate, including:
“We will allow John to have all of his notes in front of him along with an earpiece so he can have the answers given to him by his staff, in real time.” And: “We will pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.”
Oz’s derision of his opponent’s medical condition continued right up until Oz lost the race by more than 250,000 votes. Oz’s defeat flipped the Pennsylvania seat from Republican to Democrat, dooming GOP hopes of a Senate majority in 2023.
A growing number of Republicans are now pointing their finger at Donald Trump for the party’s disappointments in the 2022 elections, with good reason. Trump elevated election denial as an issue and burdened his party with a lot of election-denying candidates—and voters decisively repudiated them.
But not all of Trump’s picks were obviously bad. Oz was for years a successful TV pitchman, trusted by millions of Americans for health advice. The first Muslim nominated for a Senate run by a major party, he advanced Republican claims to represent 21st-century America. Oz got himself tangled up between competing positions on abortion, sometimes in consecutive sentences, precisely because he hoped to position himself as moderate on such issues.
But Oz’s decision to campaign as a jerk hurt him. When his opponent got sick, Oz could have drawn on his own medical background for compassion and understanding. Before he succumbed to the allure of TV, Oz was an acclaimed doctor whose innovations transformed the treatment of heart disease. He could have reminded voters of his best human qualities rather than displaying his worst.
The choice to do the opposite was his, not Trump’s.
And Oz was not unique. Many of the unsuccessful Republican candidates in 2022 offered voters weird, extreme, or obnoxious personas. Among the worst was Blake Masters, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona. He released photos and campaign videos of himself playing with guns, looking like a sociopath. He lost by nearly five points. Trump endorsed Masters in the end, but Trump wasn’t the one who initially selected or funded him. That unsavory distinction belongs to the tech billionaire and Republican donor Peter Thiel, who invested big and early in the campaign of his former university student.
Performative trolling did not always lead to failure. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis indulged in obnoxious stunts in 2022. He promoted anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists. He used the power of government to punish corporations that dissented from his culture-war policies. He spent $1.5 million of taxpayer money to send asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard.
But DeSantis was an incumbent executive with a record of accomplishment. Antics intended to enrapture the national Fox News audience could be offset by actions to satisfy his local electorate: restoring the Everglades, raising teacher pay, and reopening public schools early despite COVID risks.
DeSantis’s many Republican supporters must now ponder: What happens when and if the governor takes his show on the road? “Pragmatic on state concerns, divisive on national issues!” plays a little differently in a presidential race than it does at the state level. But the early indications are that he’s sticking with divisiveness: A month after his reelection, DeSantis is bidding for the anti-vax vote by promoting extremist allegations from the far fringes that modern vaccines threaten public health.
A generation ago, politicians invested great effort in appearing agreeable: Ronald Reagan’s warm chuckle, Bill Clinton’s down-home charm, George W. Bush’s smiling affability. By contrast, Donald Trump delighted in name-calling, rudeness, and open disdain. Not even his supporters would have described Trump as an agreeable person. Yet he made it to the White House all the same—in part because of this trollish style of politics, which has encouraged others to emulate him.
Has our hyper-polarized era changed the old rules of politics? James Poniewozik’s 2019 book, Audience of One, argues that Trump’s ascendancy was the product of a huge shift in media culture. The three big television networks of yore had sought to create “the least objectionable program”; they aimed to make shows that would offend the fewest viewers. As audiences fractured, however, the marketplace rewarded content that excited ever narrower segments of American society. Reagan and Clinton were replaced by Trump for much the same reason Walter Cronkite was replaced by Sean Hannity.
It’s an ingenious theory. But, as Poniewozik acknowledges, democratic politics in a two-party system remains an inescapably broadcast business. Trump’s material sold well enough in 2016 to win (with help from FBI Director James Comey’s intervention against Hillary Clinton, Russian hackers amplified by the Trump campaign, and the mechanics of the Electoral College). But in 2020, Trump met the political incarnation of the Least Objectionable Program: Joe Biden, who is to politics what Jay Leno was to late-night entertainment.
Trump-led Republicans have now endured four bad elections in a row. In 2018, they lost the House. In 2020, they lost the presidency. In 2021, they lost the Senate. In 2022, they won back the House—barely—but otherwise failed to score the gains one expects of the opposition party in a midterm. They suffered a net loss of one Senate seat and two governorships. They failed to flip a single chamber in any state legislature. In fact, the Democrats gained control of four: one each in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and both in Michigan.
Plausible theories about why Republicans fared so badly in 2022 abound. The economy? Gas prices fell in the second half of 2022, while the economy continued to grow. Abortion? The Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, and Republican officeholders began musing almost immediately about a national ban, while draconian restrictions began spreading through the states. Attacks on democracy? In contest after contest, Republicans expressed their contempt for free elections, and independent voters responded by rejecting them.
All of these factors clearly played a role. But don’t under-weight the impact of the performative obnoxiousness that now pervades Republican messaging. Conservatives have built career paths for young people that start on extremist message boards and lead to jobs on Republican campaigns, then jobs in state and federal offices, and then jobs in conservative media.
Former top Trump-administration officials set up a well-funded dark-money group, Citizens for Sanity, that spent millions to post trolling messages on local TV in battleground states, intended to annoy viewers into voting Republican, such as “Protect pregnant men from climate discrimination.” The effect was just to make the Republicans seem juvenile.
In 2021, then–House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a video of himself reading aloud from Dr. Seuss to protest the Seuss estate’s withdrawing some works for being racially insensitive (although he took care to read Green Eggs and Ham, not one of the withdrawn books).
Trump himself often seemed to borrow his scripts from a Borscht Belt insult comic—for instance, performing imagined dialogues making fun of his opponent’s adult children during the 2020 campaign.
This is not a “both sides” story. Democratic candidates don’t try to energize their base by “owning the conservatives”; that’s just not a phrase you hear. The Democratic coalition is bigger and looser than the Republican coalition, and it’s not clear that Democrats even have an obvious “base” the way that Republicans do. The people who heeded Representative Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden in South Carolina do not necessarily have much in common with those who knocked on doors for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Trying to energize all of the Democratic Party’s many different “bases” with deliberate offensiveness against perceived cultural adversaries would likely fizzle at best, and backfire at worst. On the Republican side, however, the politics of performance can be—or seem—rewarding, at least in the short run.
This pattern of behavior bids fair to repeat itself in 2024. As I write these words at the beginning of 2023, the conservative world is most excited not by the prospect of big legislative action from a Republican House majority, and not by Trump’s declared candidacy for president in 2024 or by DeSantis’s as-yet-undeclared one, but by the chance to repeat its 2020 attacks on the personal misconduct of President Biden’s son Hunter.
In the summer of 2019, the Trump administration put enormous pressure on the newly elected Zelensky administration in Ukraine to announce some kind of criminal investigation of the Biden family. This first round of Trump’s project to manufacture an anti-Biden scandal exploded into Trump’s first impeachment.
The failure of round one did not deter the Trump campaign. It tried again in 2020. This time, the scandal project was based on sexually explicit photographs and putatively compromising emails featuring Hunter Biden. The story the Trump campaign told about how it obtained these materials sounded dubious: Hunter Biden himself supposedly delivered his computer to a legally blind repairman in Delaware but never returned to retrieve it—so the repairman tracked down Rudy Giuliani and handed over a copy of the hard drive. The repairman had also previously given the laptop itself to the FBI. Far-fetched stories can sometimes prove true, and so might this one.
Whatever the origin of the Hunter Biden materials, the authenticity of at least some of which has been confirmed by reputable media outlets, there’s no dispute about their impact on the 2020 election. They flopped.
Pro-Trump Republicans could never accept that their go-to tactic had this time failed. Somebody or something else had to be to blame. They decided that this somebody or something was Twitter, which had briefly blocked links to the initial New York Post story on the laptop and its contents.
So now the new Twitter—and Elon Musk allies who have been offered privileged access to the company’s internal workings—is trying again to elevate the Hunter Biden laptop controversy, and to allege a cover-up involving the press, tech companies, and the national-security establishment. It’s all very exciting to the tiny minority of Americans who closely follow political schemes. And it’s all pushing conservatives and Republicans back onto the same doomed path they followed in the Trump years: stunts and memes and insults and fabricated controversies in place of practical solutions to the real problems everyday people face. The party has lost contact with the sensibility of mainstream America, a huge country full of decent people who are offended by bullying and cruelty.
There’s talk of some kind of review by the Republican National Committee of what went wrong in 2022. If it happens, it will likely focus on organization, fundraising, and technology. For any political operation, there is always room to improve in these areas. But if the party is to thrive in the post-Trump era, it needs to start with something more basic: at least pretend to be nice.
* Lead image source credits: Chris Graythen / Getty; Ed Jones / AFP / Getty; Drew Angerer / Getty; Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty; Michael M. Santiago / Getty; Brandon Bell / Getty; Win McNamee / Getty; Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty; Alex Wong / Getty
This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “Party of Trolls.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.